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Vietnamese Native Reunited With Plane He Flew To Freedom

April 23, 1985 GMT

MOUNT CLEMENS, Mich. (AP) _ Pham Quang Khiem choked back his tears as he flew a commandeered C-130 transport plane - and 53 frightened refugees - out of war-torn South Vietnam 10 years ago.

He did not hide his tears, however, when he sat again in the cockpit of the U.S. Air Force plane that carried him to freedom.

″My only regret is that I did not take more with me,″ Khiem told reporters after he saw the plane for first time since his perilous April 1975 flight from his homeland.

″This plane could have held many more. I feel sorry for that,″ he said, reliving the flight for a small crowd gathered at Selfridge Air National Guard Base for Sunday’s reunion, arranged at Khiem’s request by the Air Force.

The former South Vietnamese Air Force pilot fled his country shortly before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. ″I knew I had to get out before it was too late,″ Khiem said.

He had qualms about deserting, ″but I worry about my family,″ he said. ″I planned then to temporarily borrow the plane.″

Khiem, now a pilot for an express mail service in Dayton, Ohio, said his decision to flee was prompted by a flight he co-piloted April 2, 1975, from Da Nang to Saigon.

The aircraft, which usually carried 90 passengers, was jammed by more than 350 frantic Vietnamese fleeing the oncoming Communists, he said.

Later that month, as North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces swept across South Vietnam, an Air Force buddy arranged for him to co-pilot the same plane on a short flight to deliver rice. Khiem told his family to meet the plane at an abandoned airstrip outside Saigon, where he would make an unscheduled stop, he said.

Other crew members were unaware of the plan until Khiem and his friend landed the plane and began unloading the rice to make room for the passengers, he said.

Khiem said he told the other crew members: ″Sorry to tell you, this aircraft is not going back to Saigon anymore. You can stay or leave.″ One member got off but two others stayed, Khiem said.

″We looked at Saigon as we flew out and knew it was the last time,″ he said. ″We hid our tears.″

Khiem flew at treetop level for three hours, when he reached the Pacific Ocean. The plane continued flying at close to sea level until reaching international air space, finally landing in Singapore, Khiem said.

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″I stepped off the plane in civilian clothes and jump into the air like Toyota commercial ... oh, what a feeling 3/8″ Khiem recalled. He and his family reached the United States several weeks later - by which time South Vietnam had fallen to the Communists - and were granted refugee status.

A U.S. Air Force unit retrieved the C-130.

For its duty with the 927th Tactical Airlift Group at Selfridge, the plane has been painted a different color and carries additional instruments, but otherwise Khiem said it was just as he had left it.

″I am lucky,″ a tearful Khiem told the Air Force personnel now in charge of the plane. ″Please handle with care.″